August 2, 2020 /9th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Isaiah 55:1-5/ 2nd Reading Romans 9:1-5 / Gospel Matthew 14:13-21
Picture a crowd of thousands of people, scattered across a broad hillside. They have been out in the sun the whole day long. In their eagerness to be with Jesus, they have neglected to bring along anything to eat. As the sun hangs low in the western sky, you can hear the sound of thousands of empty stomachs growling. Children are whining and parents are restless – unsure about what they should do. The disciples of Jesus recognize the gravity of the situation. What had been a great day – with many healings and wonderful teaching – was turning into a crisis. They came to Jesus with an urgent suggestion: ”Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and find something to eat.” “This could get messy – we can’t afford to waste any time.” (It was a practical, common sense proposal.) But Jesus had a better idea. He said, “they need not go away: you give them something to eat.” This was a commissioning. “Don’t just stand there, guys – do something about this problem!” Of course, Jesus is the one who supplied all the food, but the disciples were given the responsibility for distributing all of it to the great crowd (no small task when you think about it). And they were also in charge of cleaning up and collecting all the leftover bread and fish.
There’s a direct line between this story and our ministry as a congregation. Jesus says to us as he said to the first disciples: “You give them something to eat.” And so we do. St. James has been involved for a long time in the ministry of feeding.
Consider all we do to support the COOL Food Pantry, the largest pantry in Lake County. They have a significant line item in our annual budget. We give additional support above and beyond our budget (thousands in recent months). Benefits like Foodstock raise thousands of dollars every year. Last month our youth collected almost a ton of food for COOL.
For many years (since before my time) our members have prepared and served a monthly meal for up to eighty persons at the PADS site for the homeless. Many of them say it’s one of the best meals they get all month.
Four times a year for many years we have collected items for the Family Care Closet run by North Chicago Community Partners in Waukegan. It’s a huge amount of everything from beans and rice to cooking oil. Our members have helped to staff the Family Care Closet.
We do a lot not only locally but also globally. The annual Souper Bowl of Caring raises money for the World Hunger Appeal. For years the CROPWalk has generated many thousands of dollars for the hungry. We have packed meals for Feed My Starving Children. In 2017 we raised over $32,000 for ELCA World Hunger Appeal.
This congregation takes to heart the commission Jesus gives: “You give them something to eat.” And we will continue faithfully in this Ministry of Feeding.
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Picture that crowd again, spread out under the early evening sky. They were hungry because they had gone many hours without food. Yet it wasn’t their physical hunger that got them there in the first place. There is another kind of hunger that people experience. It’s a soul hunger, a longing and a yearning for something more – a restless desire for fulfillment and completion. It’s a hunger for what’s true, what’s good, what’s enduring, what’s beautiful. This was the hunger that drew those thousands to spend a whole day, out in the open, with Jesus. Jesus offered them what they didn’t have back at home – or anyplace else. Jesus had real food for their souls.
Jesus was well acquainted with both kinds of hunger. Recall how he fasted for 40 days in the wilderness – he was famished. When the devil encouraged Jesus to turn stones into loaves of bread, he could have done it. That was a small feat compared with turning five loaves and two fish into a banquet for thousands. But Jesus didn’t work that miracle. Instead he said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus knows that humans need our daily bread – and so he taught us to pray for it. Jesus also knows that we need something more. He came into this world to give us something more. Our souls can be as hungry and thirsty as our bodies. We need the bread of life and the living water that come to us in Jesus. Daily bread is necessary – but it is not sufficient.
The great psychotherapist, Carl Jung, recognized the spiritual hunger that is part of our human condition. He wrote:
During the past thirty years, people from all the civilized countries of the earth have consulted me. . . Among all my patients in the second half of life – that is to say, over thirty five – there has not been one whose problem in the last resort was not that of finding a religious outlook on life. It is safe to say that every one of them fell ill because he had lost that which the living religions of every age have given to their followers, and none of them has been really healed who did not regain his religious outlook.
There are two kinds of human hunger, and they call forth two kinds of ministry. The Ministry of Feeding is vital and life sustaining. We are committed to this ministry, and we are doing a pretty good job – in my humble estimation.
Providing food for the soul is different from stocking the food pantry. It is not as straightforward, not as easy to calculate and measure. Yet like those thousands who came out to see and listen to Jesus, we know that we cannot live by bread alone. We know that people need something more. The great Russian author, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, wrote a very provocative statement: “This world will be saved by beauty.” Upon first hearing, it’s a head scratcher – “saved by beauty” – what does that mean? But upon reflection, it speaks tour deep and lasting hunger. Listen to what one writer has to say about our intrinsic need for beauty:
If all the world’s bodily suffering were eradicated tomorrow, we would still need hope, joy and peace. We would still need beauty. It is as necessary to the soul as food is to the body; the poor person deserves beauty just as deeply as she deserves food, shelter and education. To deprive her of beauty is to disregard her humanity in favor of her corporality. Beauty inspires hope, calls forth contemplation and awakens childlike wonder even in the midst of suffering. Anyone who has set her eyes upon the rose windows of Notre-Dame, contemplated Van Gogh’s Starry Night, watched a beautiful sunrise over the sea or listened to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony knows the indescribable song of the soul which beauty can evoke. - Mary Killeen McCans
Now, we may think of beauty as something ephemeral – pleasing, but certainly not essential. Our notion of beauty may be too narrow: it’s much more than something that’s pleasing to the ear or eye. The psalms speak of the beauty of holiness. We sing hymns to our beautiful savior. The poet John Keats wrote: “Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.” Beauty has the capacity to capture our attention – whether it’s the beauty of a blazing sunset, or the red stained-glass window in our sanctuary. When we read in Genesis that God looked on everything he had created and saw that it was “good” we should remember the Hebrew for “good” can also be translated “beautiful.” Theologian Gregory Wolfe points to the power of beauty: “Beauty can pierce the heart, wounding us with the transcendent glory of God.” Pope Benedict echoed that sentiment when he wrote: “Beauty, whether that of the natural universe or that expressed in art, can become a path towards the transcendent, towards the ultimate mystery, towards God.”
When our bodies have been fed, our souls can still be hungry – longing to be nourished with something more than the repetitive routines of the daily grind. Our souls are made for more than survival – we are hungry for truth and goodness and beauty. Jesus knew this, that people cannot thrive on bread alone. And so his ministry was about more than healing the sick and feeding the hungry.
Our mission also includes more than the Ministry of Feeding. We also need to address the hunger in people’s souls. Michael O’Brien puts it succinctly: “The beauty that will save the world is the love of God.” Our mission is to point persons to that saving beauty, in as many ways as we can.
All we do in our worship, our learning, our serving and our living the gospel can call attention to the beautiful truth and goodness of the living God. This is food for the soul.
Jesus says, “Give them something to eat.” And so we shall.
Thanks be to God.